Mr. Chairman, Mr. Ranking Member, and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today on the critical contribution of the Veterans Cemetery Grants Program (VCGP) to the mission of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) National Cemetery Administration (NCA). I know that meeting the burial needs of Veterans and their families is an issue of great interest to Minnesota Veterans.
Ensuring Access to a Burial Option for our Veterans
NCA’s statutory mission under title 38, United States Code, is to provide burial and memorialization for eligible Veterans and their eligible spouses and dependents, and to maintain those places of burial as national shrines. VA considers reasonable access to a burial option to mean that a first interment option (whether for casketed remains or cremated remains, either in-ground or in columbaria) in a national, State, or Tribal Veterans cemetery is available within 75 miles of the Veteran’s place of residence.
To provide this level of access to our Nation’s Veterans, VA administers a nationwide system of 131 national cemeteries in 39 States and Puerto Rico, as well as 33 soldiers’ lots and monument sites. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, VA operates
Ft. Snelling National Cemetery, which is one of VA’s most active cemeteries.
In addition to the federally-administered nationwide system, VA administers the Veterans Cemetery Grants Program (VCGP), which establishes a critical partnership by awarding grant funds to States and Tribes to provide a burial option to our Nation’s Veterans. The program, established in 1978 by Congress under Public Law 95-476, awards grants for cemetery projects to serve the needs of Veterans unlikely to be served by an existing national cemetery. VA may fund up to 100 percent of development costs for projects to establish, expand, improve and maintain a State, Tribal or U.S. Territory Veterans cemetery. These federally-funded cemeteries must operate solely for the interment of eligible Veterans and their eligible spouses and dependents, and they are required to conform to VA-prescribed standards and guidelines for site selection, planning, construction, appearance, and operations.
Since 1978, VCGP has awarded over 275 grants, totaling more than $482 million to establish, expand or improve 86 Veterans cemeteries in 41 States, Guam, and Saipan. In Fiscal Year (FY) 2011, these cemeteries conducted 29,491 burials for Veterans and family members, representing about 20 percent of all Veteran cemetery burials in the United States.
Administration of the Veteran Cemetery Grant Program
The VCGP grant processes and implementing regulations are designed to ensure fair and equitable grant administration to benefit the greatest number of Veterans. In order for VA to give the highest consideration to a pre-application, and before a project may be awarded a grant, the State or Tribal Organization must pass legislation authorizing the project and providing the necessary architectural/engineering (A/E) funds to allow the project to be developed. One hundred percent of allowable A/E costs will be reimbursed following grant award. This legislation and funding action will ensure that the pre-application receives the highest “Priority List” ranking. Annually, VCGP uses Veteran population data, confirmation of legislation and funding action, as well as the grant type to prioritize completed applications into a “Priority List.” VA categorizes each application in one of four priority groups:
- Priority 1 projects are gravesite expansion or improvement projects that are needed to continue service at an existing Veterans cemetery that will deplete available gravesites within four years. This includes phased development of currently undeveloped land.
- Priority 2 projects are new cemetery establishment projects.
- Priority 3 projects are planned phased gravesite development projects that will deplete available gravesites after four years.
- Priority 4 projects are for other improvements to cemetery infrastructure, such as building expansion and upgrades to roads and irrigation systems that are not directly related to the development of new gravesites. This includes operation and maintenance projects that address NCA’s national shrine standards of appearance.
This simple and open process ensures that grants are provided to fund projects that will improve or maintain access to a burial option.
As Congress appropriates the VCGP budget on an annual basis, grant opportunity letters are sent by VA for all projects on the “Priority List” that are above the approved budget line. Once a State or Tribe receives an opportunity letter, it has until the fourth quarter of that same fiscal year to complete all necessary planning work (design/architectural and engineering), receive vendor bid tabulations, and complete the remaining grant application documentation. Upon successful completion of these process steps, VA officially approves the grant award and work can begin immediately. VCGP continually monitors construction progress, with federal grant funds reimbursed consistent with the progress of the project.
State of Minnesota VCGP Grants/Applications
VCGP awarded grant funding totaling $3.9 million to the State of Minnesota in 1995 and 2002 for the large scale expansion of the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery in Little Falls. This cemetery has provided a burial option for nearly 4,000 Veterans and their families since it was established in 1994.
Currently, the State of Minnesota has four different grant applications ranked at various positions on the FY 2012 Priority List. The first application (MN-11-06) would provide a grant to expand and improve the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery in Little Falls. Minnesota has three additional applications to establish new Veterans cemeteries in South East (Fillmore County) (MN-10-05), Redwood County (MN-09-04), and in Duluth (St. Louis County) (MN-08-03).
Of the three establishment grant applications on the FY 2012 “Priority List,” Minnesota initially opted to defer the Redwood County and Duluth (St. Louis County) applications, as land has not been acquired. States, Territories and Tribal governments are solely responsible for acquisition of the necessary land. The South East (Fillmore County) grant application would establish a new Veterans cemetery for over 50,000 unserved Veterans. The proposed site is approximately 155 acres. In February 2012, Minnesota deferred its application to allow Fillmore County to resolve title issues associated with the site. The application will be included on the FY2013 “Priority List”, and once all issues are resolved, the application can be considered for a grant award, as determined by the approved budget and per the processes outlined above.
Recent Developments in VCGP Service to Veterans
VA appreciates Congress’ continued interest in the Veteran Cemetery Grant Program – both through annual budgetary support and recent statutory changes that further enhance VCGP’s ability to support VA’s mission to serve Veterans. Under Public Law 109-461, VCGP may now administer grants to Tribal Organizations in the same manner and under the same conditions as grants to States. Since last fall, VA has awarded three grants for the establishment of Tribal Veterans cemeteries on Tribal lands. Recipients were the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, the Yurok Tribe in California, and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Arizona. Additional Tribal governments have submitted applications for consideration in FY 2012. Under additional provisions of Public Law 110-157, VA may now offer operating grants to assist States and Tribes to achieve and maintain standards of appearance commensurate with national cemetery shrine status.
Thank you, again, for the opportunity to share an overview of VA’s Veteran Cemetery Grants Program – an expanding partnership between VA and State and Tribal governments which is critical to ensuring Veterans have access to the benefits and services they have earned through their service and sacrifice. NCA’s partnership with individual State departments and directors continues to grow – and grow stronger. Nearly 25 State Veteran Cemetery directors attended NCA’s annual training event in Nashville, Tennessee last week, including the Director of the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery in Little Falls.
I look forward to working with the members of this Subcommittee as we jointly meet the burial needs of the Veterans we are entrusted to serve. I would be pleased to answer any questions.